Should plug-in hybrids use public charging? An update…

A little while back, I asked whether plug-in hybrid drivers should use public charging. The question revolved around whether plug-ins, which can always get home on gas if they need to, should take up charging spots when a pure battery electric driver might need it to not get stranded.

Having now been a driver of a plug-in hybrid for a while, I wanted to post an updated observation: I actually use the public charging around here more for our plug-in than I ever do for my battery electric Nissan Leaf.

The reasons for this are pretty simple. In the Leaf, the 80+ mile charge covers pretty much anywhere I need to go in my day-to-day driving, and I’m always left with more than enough juice to get home. I still plug in when I can—but it’s more of a nice perk of some free electricity than a necessity to avoid getting stranded.

In the Pacifica hybrid, however, I get somewhere between 30 to 38 miles of electric range. That’ll take me around town no problem, but drive from Durham to Raleigh—as we did for dinner the other night—and I’ll be driving on dinosaur juice by the time I’m half way home. So in this case, plugging in to public charging provides a substantial public health and environmental benefit in terms of emissions saved.

Of course, that still leaves the question of whether unnecessary charging can leave others stranded. That may be a valid concern in areas without adequate charging, but in Raleigh we have several charging stations in almost every municipal parking lot—and I rarely see all of them in use at once. Given that battery electric vehicle drivers plug in for "top ups" too, even when they don’t strictly need it, the distinction between plug-in hybrids and battery electrics feels largely meaningless in this conversation.

Instead, I think there are a few things we can all agree on that would help resolve the situation:
1) Support more charging stations, in a wide variety of locations.
2) Make sure some charging stations—fast chargers in particular—charge a high enough rate that they really are used when they are needed.
3) Use an app like PlugShare to announce when you are charging, and when you are likely to leave, and leave a note on your windshield with a phone number if someone needs you to move.

These measures might sound cumbersome to folks who are used to filling up with gas, but the truth is that I’ve relied much less on public charging than I ever thought I would. Around town charging stations serve as much as an incentive for emission-free vehicles, as well as a psychological backstop against range anxiety, as they do as a genuinely necessary piece of infrastructure.

With super-fast charging networks expanding rapidly on highways, and with genuinely long-range EVs now becoming available, I suspect this will be increasingly the case as electrification goes mainstream.

So worry not, you plug-in drivers. Plug in, charge up, and chill out—but be prepared to move if someone does find themselves caught short.

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